Review: Coherence (2013)

A film which destabilises our concept of free will and the fixity of identity.

Coherence is a film which gains momentum from the decay of its own narrative structure. The narrative spans one night in which all the characters gather together for a meal at Beth (Elizabeth Gracen) and Hugh’s (Hugo Armstrong) house, though with the event of a comet passing the earth, visible in the night sky, this event changes the fabric of each character’s life and becomes a kind of marker or signal for organised chaos. The comet is the catalyst which exposes an inexorable string of parallel realities, all tangible and in walking distance of one another (literally, these parallel clusters of lives are mirrored back to one another in every house along the neighbourhood) and they serve to frighten the characters into seeing themselves endlessly reflected back, albeit with some alteration in the behaviour of their ‘second’ selves.

Although Beth is superstitious and invests in New Age theories such as herbal potions and feng shui, Emily (Emily Baldoni) is ultimately the most pragmatic and discerning of the bunch, basing her ideas on historical facts. The night has already taken on a sinister edge when the screens of mobile phones spontaneously crack, no internet service is available and all the power shuts down in the house. Emily always seems to have the answers for these phenomena though, as history points these inexplicable incidents toward the passing of the comet. This is where the film excels and the banality of the dinner party breaks up for something more portentous.

James Ward Byrkit provides us with a naturalistic perspective of the group; the camera feels handheld and bobs along in the characters’ wake when they leave the house to inspect the neighbouring one. The whole effect is reminiscent of the style of Rachel’s Getting Married as we catch somewhat furtive expressions on people’s faces at the dinner table, whether these are affectionate or adversarial, and the camera often singles a face out when the others are talking to create a sense of ostracism for every single person at some point in the evening. There is a lack of scripted dialogue, whereby the actors’ lines seem heavily improvised. Voices regularly rise in panic and everyone jars with one another, creating an atmosphere of profound dissonance which can sometimes make you want to punch one of them just to shut them up. Irreconcilability, however, is the central theme of the film, and the threat that there is a secondary and potentially tertiary group of identical selves at play, beyond their house, creates havoc with everyone’s conceptions of reality, as well as their intrinsic relationships with one another.

The title of the film is realised when Hugh recalls his brother owning a book about comets, and they retrieve it from the car outside. First we had superstition and New Age theories, then astronomy and celestial readings, now quantum mechanics enters the debate. The theory of Schrödinger’s Cat is significant regarding the comet as it certifies the superposition of states. If a cat is placed within a box with a vial of poison, Schrödinger asserts that, while we cannot see what goes on inside it, the cat remains in a state in which both alive and dead are equal possibilities. Copenhagen adds that, when the box is opened, the two states ‘collapse’ together and only one is realised.  This is called ‘coherence’ and while the two realities remain separate from one another but still exist as a superposition of states, they are incoherent.

This is where Coherence finally gains momentum. The group have already discovered a box from the other house, where Hugh and Mike (Nicholas Brendon) saw ‘themselves’ in the window, in which there is a photograph of everybody which has a number marked on the back. It later comes to light that perhaps this group is already a few steps ahead of them in the time scale, and have decided to defend their reality and identity by devising small signifiers like this so as to mark that house as their own. Coherence can only occur when the other parallel versions of themselves interlap or, perhaps fatally, collide. Emily soon discovers that if any one of them leaves their own house there is no chance of returning to the ‘right’ one, and the comet acts as a kind of timing device which severs any final chances of reconciliation once it passes over. Tensions between Emily and her boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling) might finally be resolved if she can only leave the house where infidelity hangs on the air and approach the house in which she believes her life may have been more substantial and secure.

Coherence does bear resemblance to Sliding Doors, and indeed is referred to self-knowingly by the characters, in which there is always a miniscule change or detail in a chain of events that might have otherwise resulted in a vastly altered life; the difference between ennui and personal fulfilment. Questions of free will and existential choice are explored neatly, although the characters are largely unlikeable, the resolution is abrupt and doesn’t feel quite as polished as it should be.

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